The birds are beginning to stake out their territory

WE HAVE nowhere near finished with winter yet, but the days are lengthening, and birds are beginning to stake out their territory.

Already there is a change of note in their song, and a new determination about who is allowed to be where.

Nests mean eggs and chicks, which in turn means that many birds would benefit from a timely attention to predators.

Some killers of course are out of bounds, but with others we can make a difference, which is what one of my fellow countrymen is about to do now.

Most shooting involves a dog, one way or another.

To find the quarry, flush and retrieve it, or in the case of someone shooting out of a hide, to provide company during a lull and keep quiet when it’s time to shoot.

Less obviously, a dog can be a decoy, and also a source of warmth. A pigeon hide is a chilly lair at this time of year, but today the pigeons are elsewhere.

The crows, however, are not, and it is crows that account for many eggs and fledglings every breeding season.

Thinning out the crow population is almost a duty.

Crows are smart and watch where people go, but they can’t count, so both of us plus dog go into the woods at the edge of which is the hide, and while my companion sneaks into the hide with his canine colleague, I walk ostentatiously back across the field.

The crows therefore think that the coast is clear, and before long they return to pottering about on the remains of the crop, which has been stripped by pigeons and also suffered from the wet conditions.

One shot, and a crow is down: the others lift in dismay, but before they can take any decisions, a small red terrier pelts out of the hide and starts to rag the dead crow.

Wise in the ways of crows and their savage beaks, but full of terrier bravado, she is determined to make sure this one is extra dead before retrieving it.

You would not want your soft-mouthed gundog to learn this trick, but it doesn’t matter with a terrier, for their job is different.

Black feathers fly, and then the crows lose their collective temper and start to mob the dog.

Because she is fox-coloured, she adds fuel to their ire, and they forget caution as they swoop and caw at her in a lifting, lowering mob. As a decoy dog, she does a grand job.

More shots down more crows, and as each one hits the tilth, the terrier leaps onto it and shakes it, while other crows swoop at her and add their voices to the general discord.

They are furious now, and getting lower each time they attack, which might be risky for the dog if the man in the hide were not so experienced.

He drops crows on the edge of the mob, furthest from his dog, so that the crows leave her briefly to guard their next dead comrade.

Finally the small band is sufficiently depleted that the survivors take to the trees and curse her from there.

Their voices will bring in other crows from all around, and a few are hacking across the sky towards us in battle order even now.

Crows must taste as foul as they smell, for few dogs will retrieve them properly. The terrier picks one distastefully by one wingtip and brings it back for a few yards, then drops it.

No matter: they will be collected and disposed of when the shooting is over. Meanwhile the sight of dead crows is bringing other crows in, and maybe a magpie will come across to gloat, and pay the price in turn.

Tail high, the little red dog trots back to her owner and the hide, to do sterling service as a hot water bottle, before the shooting begins again.